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Thoughts On The Loss of Egypt’s Pope Shenouda

March 24, 2012

The death of Pope Shenouda adds yet more uncertainty to an already fluid, uncertain and erratic process of economic, political and social change in Egypt.

Several student in my International Studies classes have asked me this week what I thought about the death of Pope Shenouda III, and what it might mean for Egypt. These are my answers:

Pope Shenouda guided the Egyptian Coptic Church for a little over forty years, since 1971.  This era saw the October War, the infitah (transition from Hasserist socialism to a form of capitalism), the assassination of Sadat, the entrenchment of the Mubarak dictatorship, the Coptic diaspora, the rise of politicized Islam, and rising inter-community tensions.

Shenouda sought to meet these tensions by encouraging Christian cohesion, building a sense of Christian identity among the faithful, building stronger catechesis (understanding of the faith), and seeking to assert  a non-submissive but also non-aggressive Christian presence in Egyptian society. Little more than a year after the fall of President Mubarak, which Shenouda witnessed without enthusiasm, his disappearance provides a further sign of the end of an era and obliges the greatest Christian community in the Arab world to make its own delicate transition in the midst of a general transition.

Then came the revolution, and the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The Pope refused to take a strong position, disappointing many young Copts. But he expressed–through some of his spokesmen–a fear that young Copts would bear the brunt of the violent reactions he expected from the state, and from other actors freed from state repression. He even went  so far as to disapprove holding mass in Tahrir and urged young Copts to suspend their protests at Maspero. For his supporters, the October Ninth violence was proof that he had been right all along.

Of particular significance in all this was Shonouda’s great charisma. Even Copts who strongly disagreed with him on issues–and there are many–were held together by his authority and strong personality.

The death of Pope Shenouda III dominated the news for days. Many satellite channels, including overtly non-Christian ones, placed the photo of the Pope in the background and showed different images of the chapel of rest and of the people waiting in long lines to view the body. The chief of the army granted special permission for the transfer of the body to the burial site at the Convent of St Bishoy and placed a helicopter at the disposal of the Church.

Other prominent non-Christian eulogists included the Shaykh of al-Azhar, who declared that the Pope’s death represented a great loss for the whole Egyptian people, and head of the ruling military council General Tantawi, who delivered a eulogy and offered his condolences to Egyptian Christians.

The pope’s successor will be chosen by a synod of bishops.

The way itwas explained to me, the synod opens with a committee of Coptic community leaders, intellectuals and clerics who will nominate candidates. Priests, monks and those bishops who have oversight over monasteries can be nominated to be pope (bishops who govern an eparchy (diocese) can vote for the new pope, but they cannot be elected).

The bishops will then hold a series of votes on the candidates, ending with a shortlist of three. These three will celebrate mass together, during which a child will draw one of their names from among three chits. The child’s random choice is said to express the will of God, and that person will be proclaimed Patriarch of Alexandria.

The newly elected pope is supposed to be confirmed by the President of the Republic; I’m not sure what will happen if a new candidate is chosen before elections–confirmed by SCAF? Or will they wait for the new president to be elected? Pope Shenouda’s election took eight months, so if this succession takes as long, the question may be moot.

The new pope will fact extraordinary challenges.

He will enter into his papacy in the greatest period of uncertainty since the 1952 Revolution.

  • Pope Shenouda III had a long history of successful dialogue with the military and civil authorities–the new pope will have to build those relationships, and to build them on shifting uncertain terrain.
  • The new pope will have to keep the Coptic community united in the face of internal divisions over how to assert Coptic identity in the new Egypt.
  • The new pope must pick up the work of dismantling the many remaining discriminatory laws. Among the most important is pushing through the law to equalize the rights of Copts  to build churches so that they go through the same process as Muslims, something SCAF promised shortly after they came to power but never followed through on.
  • The successes of the Salafi parties in the elections make it urgent that the new pope be strong and assertive–yet he will need to be diplomat enough to know when to take conciliatory positions.
  • He will need to be able to travel and shepherd not only the flock in Egypt, but a globally dispersed Coptic community with branches in the US, Canada, and Germany among other centers.
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